Next Tuesday Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak will face off for the leadership of Israel's Labor Party. A second round of voting became necessary when no candidate received 40 perecent in the first ballot ten days ago. The Ayalon-Barak race is expected to go down to the wire. The latest polls give Ayalon a narrow lead. Obviously both have been focused on winning the endorsements of the defeated candidates and the backing of their supporters, although the election will be just as much decided by who delivers a more effective voter turnout of their respective base-camps. The most significant development has been the decision by the defeated outgoing leader and Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, to strongly back Ami Ayalon. The other two ousted candidates from the first round, Ophir Pines and Danny Yatom, have both sided with Ehud Barak. But the support of Peretz should be worth far more -- he notched up 22 percent in the first round, while the other two barely scraped together a combined 10 percent. Peretz has a loyal and disciplined supporter base, unlike Barak's new allies.
A lot of the last minute deal-making focuses on the Arab sector of Labor Party membership. Arab citizens make up almost 15 percent of the Party's registered voters, even though, within the broader Arab public, support for the Labor Party has dropped precipitously (and understandably) in the last decade. Ayalon has managed to secure the support of Peretz confidant and Israel's first Arab Muslim minister, Raleb Majadele. Barak, despite being loathed and detested by the wider Israeli Arab public as a result of his own record in office, will still poll well among Arab party members due to the efforts of vote contractor, and representative of all things neanderthal in the Labor Party -- Minister Fuad Ben-Eliezer. Israel's Channel 10 News' political commentator, Raviv Druker, revealed last night that Fuad, from his perch as Infrastructure Minister, has just ordered the head of the Israeli electric company to hook the families of supportive Labor Party Arab members up to the grid. Akiva Eldar has this nice story on the competition between Majadele and Fuad. Ehud Barak's reliance on Fuad Ben-Eliezer is indicative of him being associated with the most unsavory elements in the Labor Party. It is very hard to find a progressive, dynamic new face, or a force for change amongst the political hacks who make up the Barak camp.
Admittedly, this contest between Barak and Ayalon is not being fought on deep ideological terms; however, there are significant and discernible ideological differences. It would be fair, especially if one speaks of the newly formed Ayalon-Peretz camp, to define them as the more dovish, peace/negotiation-oriented, and socio-economically progressive camp in the Israeli Labor Party. The leading politicians who are now aligned with this camp bear out this description, they include Avishai Braverman, Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Shelly Yacimovich, and others. The Barak camp has a discernibly more hawkish and (socio-economically) centrist feel to it. The Haaretz magazine ran a decidedly unflattering piece last week on Barak's business activities since he left the Prime Minister's office.
There has been a lot of criticism of the Ayalon alliance with Amir Peretz, and some Ayalon supporters are likely desert his camp and vote Barak or stay at home in protest at this new partnership. Part of that anger is against allying with Peretz, the failed politician. But at least in part, it derives from a legacy of prejudice against the Sephardim within the Labor Party. (The Sephardim, are the Oriental or Middle Eastern Jews of which Peretz, born in Morocco, is one.) In fact, the push back against the Ayalon Peretz partnership could conceivably hand victory to Ehud Barak. If that does not happen, and the Ayalon-Peretz partnership holds beyond the election, then it might just be the hope for rebuilding an influential, progressive, and politically competitive Labor Party in Israel. The flipside of this, of course, is that the Party could, and is even likely, to remain divided, which will undermine efforts to rebuild.
On his excellent blog, Matthew Yglesias observed that ProspectsforPeace.com "includes much more coverage of the Israeli Labour Party leadership race than any sane person would want to read." I hope this post lived up to Matt's expectations. We will continue to follow the developments and rumors coming out of the second round of the primary race.